Q&A with Joywell Foods’ Karen Huh

Joywell Foods is a food tech company using microbial fermentation to create healthier sweetener alternatives derived from exotic fruits.

Briefly introduce us to Joywell Foods. 

Joywell Foods is a food tech company that uses microbial fermentation to cultivate sweet proteins from exotic fruits and create alternative sweeteners that are orders of magnitude sweeter than sugar.  Our mission is to reinvent the joy of consuming by reducing the prevalence of sugar in our everyday diets.  This way, we can help give consumers more access to the things they love to eat and drink, but either consume too much of our cannot have because it has too much sugar. 

Joywell Foods is pre-revenue.  As the CEO, what KPIs do you prioritize and how do you establish a business model that can serve both your R&D needs and your future commercialization?

It really goes back to the mission of eradicating the prevalence of sugar.  It is a well documented challenge.  There are a couple of KPIs and layers as it pertains to aligning our business strategy with that mission.

The first is technology.  It is no secret that we are creating a platform of sweet fruit proteins.  While I cannot share all of it, there are a number of technological milestones that we aim to hit.  Our ability to do so is an important KPI. 

Another key KPI is our ability to navigate the regulatory environment.  We are cultivating a relationship with the FDA and navigating the GRAS approval process.  It is very important that we are aligned with the FDA and have clear guidelines in terms of labeling, health benefits, safety demonstration and other factors of our business. 

Lastly, our ability to demonstrate to consumers that they are ready for this product is also a KPI.  That means we are measuring how the public is responding to our novel ingredient, what messages resonate and what ways we can improve on those fronts.  

How are you educating consumers?

It first begins with getting alignment from a regulatory perspective regarding what we are going to call these proteins.  There are some that have a negative halo simply because of what they are called and subsequently marketed.  While I think there are some legitimate – perhaps less tasty – solutions out there, many consumers don’t think stevia is a natural product.  Unfortunately it’s in the same bucket as other unnatural sounding sweeteners such as xylitol.   

Secondly, we will be building more content to educate consumers about the existence of these proteins.  These are novel proteins and to the mainstream consumer they are totally new.  So, it is crucial that they don’t view them as ‘artificial’ like a Splenda or Sweet’N Low, because it is actually the opposite from a health perspective.  The story is very important because we are trying to reinvent an entire relationship with sweetener. 

What has been a particular inflection point that has allowed Joywell Foods to get to the position it is in today?

Thanks to brands like Perfect Day and Impossible Foods, there has been growing general awareness of the potential of synthetic biology and the role of fermentation in scaling proteins.  In parallel, we are seeing a growing awareness of sugar’s negative health effects, and in the context of COVID-19, people are increasingly realizing how important diet is in terms of your propensity to develop certain risk factors and illnesses.  So, as for an inflection point, I would say for us it relates to the macro proliferation of food tech concepts, as well as the influx of investor and consumer interest in a relatively short period of time.

What is Joywell Food’s superpower?

Our superpower is our ability to build technology with a consumer in mind.  We are very aware of the foods that Americans enjoy regularly which are completely laden with sugar.  There are the foods we are actively building solutions to address. 

If you could join the crew from Inception and implant one fact or idea into the minds of consumers, what would it be?

It would be to eat more real plants and eat more real food, which may sound counterintuitive or counterproductive to what we are doing, but our sugar addiction runs so deep, I would contend that offering a more healthful sweetener is just one meaningful part of a very complex puzzle. Another part is simply addressing how we eat in general. 

Six months from now, what’s going to be your biggest problem?

Six months from now our biggest problem will be determining which partners truly share our same vision with the same passion that we do.  We have had a series of great partnership conversations, but when push comes to shove it’s going to come down to how much they care about this space, this problem and their commitment to work with us. 

What is a memento from your childhood that you still keep and how does it serve you?

I grew up with three older boys (technically I only had one brother but my parents were legal guardians to two of my cousins).  The age gap was significant enough to matter, and one thing that really stuck with me is grit.  I definitely had to develop a bit of fortitude – which frankly I didn’t have for a long time as a kid –  and it’s a trait that I have kept throughout my life and can channel whenever the going gets tough. 

Another thing that I kept from my childhood is sports analogies.  I have been made fun of for the number of sports analogies that I make!  

What is your creative outlet and how does it help you channel a flow state?

My creative outlet is reading, cooking and finding new things to learn.  When COVID-19 started, my husband and I subscribed to Masterclass and have been trying to absorb new knowledge and skills. I get a certain ‘high’ from learning a new skill — it could be really crafty like making something with the kids’ art supplies or just learning about a topic that is totally obscure.  

Also, I recently developed a new habit of getting out of the house and going for a walk every morning.  On these walks, I try to listen to a new podcast that either teaches me something or makes me laugh really hard.  So that’s probably a ‘non-traditional’ way that I use to channel a flow state!

What is the most spontaneous thing you’ve ever done?

While I am not a very spontaneous person, one time my husband and I had vacation plans to go to my college reunion.  A few days before we were leaving, a friend of ours offered us tickets to The Champions League final at Wembley stadium.  My husband, being a huge soccer fan, prepared this whole speech on why we should bag our plans and go.  I decided, ‘what the heck’, and we bought plane tickets and booked a hotel pretty much the day before!

Oh yeah, and I once gave someone the Heimlich Maneuver.  Also easily the most stressful moment in my life. 

What is one daily ritual that you cannot live without?


What is the last: 

TV show you binged?

Cobra Kai on Netflix.  

Movie you watched?

Secret Life of Pets 2 (with my kids) directed by Chris Renaud. 

Song you listened to?

I’m Still Standing by Elton John. 

Podcast you listened to?

The Dave Chang Show. 

Book you read?

A Most Beautiful Thing by Arshay Cooper.   

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